Prison coffee cup 

My prison safe coffee cup.  I kept it as a reminder of what I left behind and never want to return to.




One of the notable aspects of jail/prison is the removal of common items that could potentially be used as a weapon.  Everyday items, creature comforts, or even basic hygiene supplies when they end up in the wrong hands can become dangerous.  The higher the level of security the more items are restricted.  For example, in quarantine which is in some ways like a level V, standard writing utensils have been replaced with less dangerous alternatives.  Golf pencils instead of full size.  Short stubby pens made from soft flexible material instead of hard plastic or metal.  The idea being that they are too short to be fully griped in the hand and still penetrate deeply enough into flesh to cause significant injury.

The same approach was taken with tooth brushes.  Full size tooth brushes made from plastic can be sharpened into a point.  More over this has been across all levels.  There does tend to be some inconsistencies.  At one point while I was in prison travel tooth brushes were added to the commissary.  The type where the handle doubles as a storage case.  Less than a year later they were removed without explanation.  If I had to guess one was used as a weapon.  In an unusual move that was probably an oversight, an innate returning from county jail where he spent time while attending court was able to bring in as personal property a dozen long handled tooth brushes. He was able to sell them in the housing unit for two bags of coffee each, worth about $8 per tooth brush.  For the guys that had the foresight to buy extra travel tooth brushes, these were going for a bag of coffee each.  This just shows the value that some guys put on their teeth.

Razor blades have to be the all-time hair-raising security nightmare.  The plain old disposable single blade type with a plastic handle that cut skin better than facial hair.  In the county jail the razors were kept at the officer station and given out for use.  The same technique was used in prison segregation.  While I was in prison the MDOC removed razors from the population because of the number of incidents involving razor blades used as weapons.  Instead inmates had to purchase battery powered electric shavers.  As a concession the PBF bought razors for the indigent.  A $1.50 razor was replaced with a $16 device that required AA batteries for an additional $3 per 4 pack.  This is just another case were a few have ruined it for everyone.

When they took away the razor blades they also took away the pencil sharpeners for hobby craft that had a blade held in a plastic housing.  Only the wall mounted rotary style was available in the housing unit.  The classrooms had either those or electric pencil sharpeners.  The unit sharpeners were generally so bad that they would eat an art pencil before ever giving a point sharp enough to draw with.

Scissors could only be children’s safety scissors.  The type that you couldn’t hurt yourself with if you disregarded your mother’s admonition not to run with them.  They could barely cut a sheet of paper, skin would be out of the question.  Rulers could only be plastic; no wood or metal styles were permitted and no more than a foot long.  Knitting needles were not allowed but crochet hooks were permitted.  Paint brushes had to be short handled and thin bodied.  Sewing needles were only sold as part of a small sewing repair kit and would break going through fabric let alone anything tougher like leather. Leather working as a hobby craft was eliminated with its stronger needles.

Wrist watches were allowed to only have basic day, date, time and stop watch functions. Count down timers were not allowed.  The MDOC must have been afraid that MacGyver inspired inmates would make a bomb out of it or something.  My first watch was a basic digital Casio with an Indiglow face.  When that watch died I tried to order another but was denied.  I had to settle for the same watch without the Indiglow face.  The reason was that the catalog description for the two watches differed slightly, even though the only actual difference was the night light on the approved watch verses the Indiglow on the unapproved watch.

Legal pads and loose-leaf paper for writing but spiral bound notebooks or three ring binders were not allowed to be purchased because anything metal was contraband.  I once purchased a foot-long florescent light so I could have adequate light to read in bed.  A month after I purchased it a memo was issued requiring that the lamp be sent home or turned in.  The catalog vendor had switched from the approved plastic body to a metal case.  I still have it at home and use it in my garage workshop.  Odds are after I moved to level I it would have been stolen.

Vaseline used to be sold in large containers with an easy opening lid.  But when Vaseline and water are heated in a microwave it becomes a weapon when splashed in someone’s face.  It is worse than plain boiling water because it sticks and causes greater damage.

Large mugs were removed from the commissary before I got there.  Only 8 oz. coffee cups and 20 oz. plastic tumblers were available.  The larger double walled mugs came with a plastic handle and a lid which kept the coffee warm longer.  By limiting the volume of cups, it would thereby reduce the number and severity of incidents involving throwing liquids.  The old mugs became a valuable commodity that would be resold over and over.  Guys would have them painted in order to give them a unique appearance to reduce theft by making them one of a kind works of art.  Floor wax sealer applied regularly would keep the paint protected.

Cleaning chemicals like bleach were supplied in a diluted form and even then, metering pumps were installed to dilute them further prior to use.  It reduced waste when guys used chemicals for cleaning with the philosophy “if a little is good, more is better” in a vain attempt to kill more germs and kept chemicals that could cause harm if ingested or splashed in eyes from being readily available.

Tools from maintenance or vocational education must be accounted for at the end of every shift or class period.  Contractors working in the facility must manifest in and out every tool.  Many years ago, I worked as a contractor doing repairs in the ceiling above Cell block 7, the intake unit at the old walled prison and scalpels were part of my took kit. The COs had a cow about me needing to take them into the prison but there was no way to do my job without them.  I had to account for them or I wasn’t going home.

Mirrors in the bathroom are made of either plastic or polished metal.  No glass that could be smashed and the shards turned into weapons.  Small plastic mirrors were available in the commissary and necessity since the bathroom mirrors were either oxidized or scratched so badly that they were practically unusable to use to see yourself shaving.  Just before I came home one of the pole barns I lived in was being renovated and they put new mirrors in the bathrooms.  I got to see myself clearly for the first time in years instead of the funhouse image I had to put up with previously.

Lawn mowers at the multi-level facility were the old fashion manual push mower because the higher levels weren’t allowed to have access to power mowers which could be used as a weapon apparently.  At the level I only facility the yard crew had gas powered push mowers but maintenance had put a lock on the gas cap so the inmates could not steal the gas.

Except for the school the only calculators available have basic add, subtract, multiply, divide functions.  The school has to supply a specific calculator for the GED program or they wouldn’t have them, again the MacGyver thing.

Typewriters that were available for purchase in the catalog came without memory because the legal beagles would use them to mass produce grievances.  There were a few old ones around when I was in level II that had memory, so I’ve seen their power.  I guess the MDOC believes that words can hurt.

In level II there were a lot of items that I saw that could no longer be purchased.  Large ghetto blasters, TVs with internal speakers, black plastic headphones, and other items that were either held onto by the lifers or resold over and over again because they weren’t on people’s property cards and therefor would be confiscated if they tried to take it with them to another facility.

In the units with cells the MDOC had to install a fan as part of a settlement over the lack of air conditioning and heat related illness during the summer months.  To keep from having to pay for replacement fans when those wore out the MDOC allowed inmates to purchase small personal fans from the catalog.  The big ones did a good job moving air.  I had one in my level IV and II cells.  I had to purchase a personal fan when I got to level I. The problem was they were small and really didn’t move very much air to cool you off. Attempts to get a larger fan approved were denied because they said it posed a security threat.  As if a bunch of hot and grumpy guys with short tempers wasn’t already a threat. It is amazing the devious uses guys with too much time on their hands, a temper, and who see little value in human life can come up with.  Somebody once said to me that prison wouldn’t be such a bad place if it wasn’t for the people there.

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